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Hall of Fame

Susan Hammer

The perplexing mystery of an innocuous politician's popularity

By Will Harper

When Susan Hammer was elected mayor of San Jose in 1990, rapper MC Hammer was a pop mega-star. As a former mayoral aide tells the story, kids who spied the new mayor--whom they recognized from her campaign media blitz--walking down the street at the time would shout, "It's Hammer time, it's Hammer time," making playful use of the rap star's familiar invocation.

"Hammer Time" was maybe as close as Susan Hammer ever came to earning an official nickname during her eight-year reign as mayor.

Oh, there were attempts to give Hammer a nickname. The Mercury News at least once called her Mayor Topspin, an oblique reference to her love of tennis. Off the air, KLIV newsies called her "The Hamster." But those names never stuck.

Susan Hammer What's the Secret To Her Popularity? Even Susan Hammer herself doesn't know the answer to this civic puzzle.

In politics, the nickname is a sign of celebrity. Willie Brown is Da Mayor. Jerry is Moonbeam. Hammer's self-absorbed predecessor, downtown-rebuilder Tom McEnery, was called many things during his term: The Prince, Lord Mayor, Big Mac.

Those three politicians all had something Susan Hammer didn't: personality. More specifically, they had (and have) a TV-friendly, quotable public persona that often inspired strong emotions, if not outright disdain.

Susan Hammer, by contrast, delivered sound bites in a hypnotizing, husky-voiced monotone that made Janet Reno look comparatively charismatic. She never did anything crazy like call a 49ers quarterback an "embarrassment to humankind" while the tape was rolling. Her big "scandal": the brief elimination of the Manger Scene from Christmas in the Park.

Mayor Hammer exuded a steady if unspectacular competence. To use a baseball analogy, she was like a solid middle-reliever who keeps the team in the game and doesn't let things get out of hand. But middle-relievers don't get nicknames (or major league baseball teams to move to San Jose).

Barry Barnes, a consultant with the firm that ran Hammer's re-election campaign in 1994, argues that the ex-mayor's lack of a moniker is a compliment. "Nicknames are usually used by detractors," Barnes opines. "Susan didn't have a lot of detractors. And even her critics liked her personally."

Over her eight years as mayor, Metro readers repeatedly told Hammer "We like you, we really like you" by voting her best local politician, or variations thereof, no fewer than six times. Hammer may not have been flashy--one year readers identified Miss Hathaway from the Beverly Hillbillies as the Best Actor to Play Hammer in the Made-for-TV Movie of Her Life--but San Joseans are content to leave flashiness and FBI corruption probes to our more sophisticated San Francisco counterparts.

Still, readers occasionally gave Hammer the thumbs-down, like last year when she was named "Best Politician to Can." Oddly enough, that same year readers also named her "Best Politician to Keep." And this year's readers, loath to let Hammer go--or else unaware that she ever left--awarded her third place for "Best Politician" and fourth for "Best Politician to Vote Out of Office."

Bob Brownstein, the former mayor's budget director, has an easy explanation for such ambivalence: "She was the mayor of San Jose. Any elected official who is highly visible and who does anything significant will be both well-liked and disliked."

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From the September 30-October 6, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.

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